When Steve Rosenfield opened his Barrio Queen restaurants nine days ago in the Phoenix area, his employees were prepared to meet the highest sanitary and social distancing standards for COVID-19.
What he hadn’t prepared for was the influx of customers, who neither donned a mask nor cared for their disposable menu, instead opting for the regular full-size menu that Rosenfield’s team sanitizes after each use. Because the obvious reality is, customers can’t eat or drink while wearing a mask.
"I think the first group of people coming in are willing to take the chance," Rosenfield said. "These people are basically saying, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going to come out and enjoy a good dinner and a beverage.’"
Rosenfield was a panelist for the Foodservice News webinar titled "Welcoming Back Staff and Customers: Tips for Doing It Right," the second session in the second round of Restaurant Recovery Week webinars focused on how operators can manage through the new norms of the strange times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The series is hosted by Franchise Times, Foodservice News, Food On Demand and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.
Moderated by Foodservice News Editor Nancy Monroe, the webinar featured panelists including Rosenfield, Apex Supply Chain Technologies CEO Mike Wills, and Shea Design principal and partner Tanya Spaulding.
With no signs of takeout and delivery slowing anytime soon, Wills told listeners to prepare for congestion challenges in your kitchen.
"Congestion rapidly rising is one of your number one enemies," Wills said. "Unfortunately, it will create havoc with make lines on a Friday or Saturday night at peak rush—your lobby is slammed and tables slammed to the degree you can have with them social distancing, and now your off-premises orders are not declining."
Wills’ company Apex, which provides automated solutions to businesses, has helped some brands attach delivery stations to the exterior walls of their buildings, so delivery drivers or pickup customers simply scan their order codes without needing to enter the lobby. Wills has also seen commercial dining such as higher education and hospital cafeterias adopting more automation for delivery and packaged orders.
"As busy and cluttered as everyone’s schedules are, few people have a defined time for lunch," Wills said. "We’re also seeing many corporate cafeterias going towards dinner take-home…they can pick it up on their way out, and it’s a way for venues to extend operational capacity and the investment in their kitchens."
Decluttering and repurposing spaces
Spaulding, whose company Shea focuses on creating consumer environments and designs 40-50 restaurants per year nationwide, recommends taking a critical look at your restaurant space.
"It’s not just cleaning, it’s decluttering, using a fresh set of eyes to look at your space," Spaulding said. "We add layers, focal points and attention to detail, and now, it’s time to get rid of those touch points and any unnecessary floral arrangements that may be collecting dust. Move them aside for now, because the new reality and perception guests have coming in is that they’re looking less at how great your space looks, and more at how it feels light, bright, spacious, and smells clean and fresh."
This applies even for restaurants that are still closed and have no reopening date in sight. Spaulding advises restaurant owners to get in their spaces now, take inventory of tables and chairs, move things into storage if needed, adjust lighting and, above all, just don’t sit and wait.
"There’s a spectrum of fear out there. Lots of people are dying to get out there and live their lives again, and there are those who haven’t left their houses for the past two months," Spaulding said. "We have to prepare for the worst, because we want people to feel comfortable coming back."
In addition to basic guidelines such as taking away as many touch points for guests as possible, Spaulding also suggests creating peninsulas at the bar instead of lines, repurposing spaces such as valet parking spaces to outdoor seating or takeout locations, and brightening up spaces so people can see better. Little stickers on the floor can also be an opportunity for creative branding along with directing traffic and helping people to stay 6 feet apart.
"We have to take their fears seriously, but you can have some fun with it, too, and use it as a branding opportunity and a way to welcome people back in," Spaulding said. "This is an opportunity to generate a personality statement…you can match staff aprons to their masks, or incorporate your logo."
Don’t skimp on staff
Rosenfield put together a protection practices sheet to hand out to guests to educate them about their sanitizing measures and social distancing efforts. He dedicated a staff member to walk around the restaurant with cleaning materials, and another employee to wear a mask and open restroom doors for guests, then go in with a cleaning cart after to sanitize the bathroom.
"This is not a time when you’re going to get wealthy. You can’t get into this frame of mind to start recouping money you lost and cutting labor," Rosenfield said. "You have to show your guests you care. If you’re going to drive management crazy to watch every penny on labor, you won’t be able to create that welcome-back atmosphere. Do the things you need to do to win your guests back long term."
Rosenfield requires all staff to wear masks and gloves, and places hand sanitizer stations around his restaurants. They also provide paper towels in restrooms, something Spaulding also recommends, even if you have a Dyson hand dryer.